Module 11: Scientific Notation

Powers of Ten

Decimal notation is based on powers of

10

: 0.1 is \frac{1}{10^1}, 0.01 is \frac{1}{10^2}, 0.001 is \frac{1}{10^3}, and so on.

We represent these powers with negative exponents:

\frac{1}{10^1}=10^{-1}

, \frac{1}{10^2}=10^{-2}, \frac{1}{10^3}=10^{-3}, etc.

Negative exponents: \frac{1}{10^n}=10^{-n}

Note: This is true for any base, not just

10

, but we will focus only on 10 in this course.

With our base

10

number system, any power of 10 can be written as a 1 in a certain decimal place.

10^{4} 10^{3} 10^{2} 10^{1} 10^{0} 10^{-1} 10^{-2} 10^{-3} 10^{-4}
10,000 1,000 100 10 1 0.1 0.01 0.001 0.0001

If you haven’t watched the video “Powers of Ten” from 1977 on YouTube, take ten minutes right now and check it out. Your mind will never be the same again.

Scientific Notation

Let’s consider how we could rewrite some different numbers using these powers of

10

.

Let’s take

50,000

as an example. 50,000 is equal to 5\times10,000 or 5\times10^4.[1]

Looking in the other direction, a decimal such as

0.0007

is equal to 7\times0.0001 or 7\times10^{-4}.

The idea behind scientific notation is that we can represent very large or very small numbers in a more compact format: a number between

1

and 10, multiplied by a power of 10.

A number is written in scientific notation if it is written in the form a\times10^n, where n is an integer and a is any real number such that 1\leq{a}<10.

Note: AnĀ integer is a number with no fraction or decimal part: …

-3

, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3

Exercises

1. The mass of the Earth is approximately

5,970,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

kilograms. The mass of Mars is approximately 639,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms. Can you determine which mass is larger?

Clearly, it is difficult to keep track of all those zeros. Let’s rewrite those huge numbers using scientific notation.

Exercises

2. The mass of the Earth is approximately

5.97\times10^{24}

kilograms. The mass of Mars is approximately 6.39\times10^{23} kilograms. Can you determine which mass is larger?

It is much easier to compare the powers of

10

and determine that the mass of the Earth is larger because it has a larger power of 10. You may be familiar with the term order of magnitude; this simply refers to the difference in the powers of 10 of the two numbers. Earth’s mass is one order of magnitude larger because 24 is 1 more than 23.

We can apply scientific notation to small decimals as well.

Exercises

3. The radius of a hydrogen atom is approximately

0.000000000053

meters. The radius of a chlorine atom is approximately 0.00000000018 meters. Can you determine which radius is larger?

Again, keeping track of all those zeros is a chore. Let’s rewrite those decimal numbers using scientific notation.

Exercises

4. The radius of a hydrogen atom is approximately

5.3\times10^{-11}

meters. The radius of a chlorine atom is approximately 1.8\times10^{-10} meters. Can you determine which radius is larger?

The radius of the chlorine atom is larger because it has a larger power of

10

; the digits 1 and 8 for chlorine begin in the tenth decimal place, but the digits 5 and 3 for hydrogen begin in the eleventh decimal place.

Scientific notation is very helpful for really large numbers, like the mass of a planet, or really small numbers, like the radius of an atom. It allows us to do calculations or compare numbers without going cross-eyed counting all those zeros.

Exercises

Write each of the following numbers in scientific notation.

5.

1,234

6.

10,200,000

7.

0.00087

8.

0.0732

Convert the following numbers from scientific notation to standard decimal notation.

9.

3.5\times10^4

10.

9.012\times10^7

11.

8.25\times10^{-3}

12.

1.4\times10^{-5}

You may be familiar with a shortcut for multiplying numbers with zeros on the end; for example, to multiply

300\times4,000

, we can multiply the significant digits 3\times4=12 and count up the total number of zeros, which is five, and write five zeros on the back end of the 12: 1,200,000. This shortcut can be applied to numbers in scientific notation.

To multiply powers of 10, add the exponents: 10^m\cdot10^n=10^{m+n}

Exercises

Multiply each of the following and write the answer in scientific notation.

13.

(2\times10^3)(4\times10^4)

14.

(5\times10^4)(7\times10^8)

15.

(3\times10^{-2})(2\times10^{-3})

16.

(8\times10^{-5})(6\times10^9)

When the numbers get messy, it’s probably a good idea to use a calculator. If you are dividing numbers in scientific notation with a calculator, you may need to use parentheses carefully.

Exercises

The mass of a proton is

1.67\times10^{-27}

kg. The mass of an electron is 9.11\times10^{-31} kg.

17. Divide these numbers using a calculator to determine approximately how many times greater the mass of a proton is than the mass of an electron.

18. What is the approximate mass of one million protons? (Note: one million is

10^6

.)

19. What is the approximate mass of one billion protons? (Note: one billion is

10^9

.)

Engineering Notation

Closely related to scientific notation is engineering notation, which uses only multiples of

1,000

. This is the way large numbers are often reported in the news; if roughly 37,000 people live in Oregon City, we say “thirty-seven thousand” and we might see it written as “37 thousand”; it would be unusual to think of it as 3.7\times10,000 and report the number as “three point seven ten thousands”.

One thousand =

10^3

, one million = 10^6, one billion = 10^9, one trillion = 10^{12}, and so on.

In engineering notation, the power of

10

is always a multiple of 3, and the other part of the number must be between 1 and 1,000.

A number is written in engineering notation if it is written in the form

a\times10^n

, where n is a multiple of 3 and a is any real number such that 1\leq{a}<1,000.

Note: Prefixes for large numbers such as kilo, mega, giga, and tera are essentially engineering notation, as are prefixes for small numbers such as micro, nano, and pico. We’ll see these in another module.

Exercises

Write each number in engineering notation, then in scientific notation.

20. The U.S. population is around

330.2

million people.[2]

21. The world population is around

7.68

billion people.[3]

22. The U.S. national debt is around

26.6

trillion dollars.[4]

 


  1. For some reason, although we generally try to avoid using the "x" shaped multiplication symbol, it is frequently used with scientific notation.
  2. August 27, 2020 estimate from https://www.census.gov/popclock/
  3. August 27, 2020 estimate from https://www.census.gov/popclock/
  4. August 27, 2020 data from https://fiscaldata.treasury.gov/datasets/debt-to-the-penny/debt-to-the-penny

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Technical Mathematics by Morgan Chase is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.